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Francis Bret Harte (1836–1902). The Luck of Roaring Camp, The Outcasts of Poker Flat & The Idyl of Red Gulch.

Biographical Note

FRANCIS BRET HARTE was born at Albany, N. Y., on August 25, 1839. He was the son of the professor of Greek at Albany College; but, his father dying while the son was still a boy, he left school and went to California at the age of seventeen. His career on the Pacific coast was very varied, and he was in turn school-teacher, miner, printer, express messenger, secretary of the San Francisco mint, and editor. He made his appearance as an author with a group of “Condensed Novels” in which he followed in the steps of Thackeray, burlesquing the styles of popular writers of fiction. These were first published in the paper he edited, “The Californian,” and later, in 1867, in book form. The next year he became editor of “The Overland Monthly,” and to it he began contributing the stories, sketches, and poems, dealing with mining life in California, which first made him known to the Eastern States and Europe.

For a year he served as professor at the University of California, and then returned to his native State, living in New York City till 1878. From 1878 to 1885 he was in the consular service, representing the United States first at Crefeld in Germany, and later at Glasgow, Scotland. From 1885 till his death in 1902 he lived chiefly in London, where he devoted himself to literary work.

The tales here printed belong to the early period of Bret Harte’s production and were written while he was still living in the West. Though he continued writing in much the same vein for over thirty years, and though he maintained throughout a high level of interest, it is generally agreed that he never surpassed his first group of stories. It is not difficult to understand the enthusiasm which these created on their first appearance. The life which he depicted and the scenery amid which the stories were laid were entirely new in literature. The early years of the gold rush to California had drawn thither an extraordinary mixture of nationalities and types; and the peculiar conditions under which they lived had produced a civilization (if the word can be used in this connection) which was unique while it lasted. Bret Harte went West in time to see it and mingle with it; and he was endowed with an eye to discern its picturesque features and a breadth of sympathy generous enough to feel the human quality that lay beneath the sordid exterior. The tradition of the short story had already been established in America, and to the various species of it which had been perfected by Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, Harte added another as distinctive as any. Stories like “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Idyl of Red Gulch” have a serious interest as pictures of a phase of American life which already seems far away; but their attractiveness is still more due to the skill they display in the sketching of types, to the pathos which they reveal in the most unlikely characters, and to the restraint and concentration with which the stories are told.

Bret Harte’s fiction has overshadowed his poetry; yet he produced verse of a fine delicacy, and one or two of the most successful humorous poems in our literature.

W. A. N.